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Government fights to keep NAMA debt off its books

The government is in urgent talks with EU officials to prevent NAMA debts of up to €30bn appearing on the government books.

The surprise threat to the published public finances arises from the state ownership of Irish Life. A key private investment in the NAMA project by Irish Life allowed borrowings by the bad bank to be kept off the balance sheet.

NAMA is ultimately owned by a so-called 'special purpose vehicle' (SPV), in which the State has minority stake, with 51pc owned by Irish Life Investment Managers, New Ireland Assurance and a group of clients of Allied Irish Banks Investment Managers.

This structure persuaded officials at the EU statistics service Eurostat that NAMA could be treated as a private entity in the national accounts. Eurostat has the final say in how EU governments present their accounts.

It is understood that they are querying whether this can continue, after last month's purchase of Irish Life .

A spokesman for the Department of Finance confirmed that there has been an "ongoing engagement with Eurostat" relating to the proposed sale of Irish Life.

"The department is satisfied that this matter will not result in NAMA being brought on to the government balance sheet," he said.

The SPV was set up with €100m of capital and is jointly owned by private investors (51pc) and NAMA (49pc) through an investment holding company, National Asset Management Agency Investment Limited.

It would not be the first time that Eurostat has made life difficult for the Irish government. When the €32bn Anglo promissory notes were arranged in 2010, Eurostat insisted that the whole 10-year programme was accounted for in one budget, giving Ireland a 2010 deficit of 32pc of GDP.

Although this was only an accounting technicality, the record-breaking figure made headlines across the globe at a time that Ireland could least afford them.

The worst-case scenario for the government would result in an emergency firesale of Irish Life, but that would require a buyer to stay in the SPV.

SPVs are not unusual and the Irish scheme was closely modelled on one set up by the French government.

Ireland's case for holding NAMA off balance sheet was bolstered at the time by German requests that its rescue scheme be treated in an off balance sheet manner so as not to inflate the German debt/GDP ratio.

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